At a glance, Guided by Voices would seem the strangest novelty of independent rock. See, main voice Robert Pollard was a fourth grade teacher when the band made it big back in ’94 when it released Bee Thousand (that’s indie big, of course, meaning they sold over two thousand copies). Stranger is that the band’s roster is under constant rotation since co-voice Tobin Sprout left to pursue a law career just as they approached success. And the band and all its side projects are enormously prolific, having released more than one thousand songs in the past ten years alone.
Human Amusement at Hourly Rates is one of two “best of” compilations that Guided by Voices has released in tandem (the other, Hardcore UFOs Box Set, also contains rarities and singles). Human Amusement encapsulates the band, stringing together hits over the past twelve years in the ultimate Guided by Voices mix tape, arranged by Pollard himself.
Many of those songs last no longer than a minute, yet contain pristine pop hooks. The lyrics essentially read like Mad-Libs: “I met a non-dairy creamer / explicitly laid out like a fruitcake / With a wet spot bigger then a Great Lake,” Pollard nonchalantly states on “Hot Freaks,” a perennial favorite off Bee Thousand. At best, their song titles are perverse: see “Tractor Rape Chain” off the same record. They have a cult-like following; one look at gbv.com finds Pollard’s face on a bill reading “In Bob We Trust.” Their concerts are drunken messes, with Pollard hurling Budweiser tallboys into the crowd as “G-B-V!” is chanted furiously.
Given this fervent following, imagine the number of GbV comps that fans have created traded, sold. Imagine the amount of gems they could have compiled on a “Best of.” And imagine how it could have been severely botched, spinning their geeky fans into a frenzy.
Thankfully, putting together a chronicle of the band’s best work was handled by Pollard like a Faberge egg. For the most part, the 32 songs (yeeeah, 32) on Human Amusement at Hourly Rates chronicle the band’s past 10 years — only a few tracks pre-date their landmark Bee Thousand, the band’s first for Matador (titled after a misreading of Beethoven on a drive-in sign, incidentally). This was a smart choice; as owners of Box, the first of now three GbV box sets, know, most of the pre-Matador material is rubbish.
Starting things off with “A Salty Salute” sets the appropriate mood, letting fans remember the call to action of the first track from 1995’s Alien Lanes. Alien Lanes was The Empire Strikes Back of GbV’s mid-’90s trilogy that ended when Tobin Sprout left in 1996 after the release of Under the Bushes, Under the Stars.
Pollard then fast-forwards to some more recent and polished material, plucking the cream of the crop from their last few LPs. “Everywhere with Helicopter” from 2002’s Universal Truths and Cycles and “My Kind of Soldier” of this year’s Earthquake Glue stand up well against earlier “hits” “Echos Myron” off Bee Thousand and “Motor Away” off 1995’s Alien Lanes.
Pooh-poohers of the recent records can piss off; these songs are absolute perfection. The most unexpected pleasure of the comp comes about halfway through with the ultra-rare Tigerbomb EP version of “Game of Pricks.” It’s a pepped-up jewel and probably the best two minutes of Guided by Voices’ career thus far.
The record deserves much credit for sticking to a non-revisionist history. Whereas Pollard could have excluded any of Tobin’s songs, he took the high road and placed the classic “To Remake the Young Flyer” from Under the Bushes in all it’s reverb glory right up front.
The insert shows the many incarnations of the band, giving credit where credit is due to past GBV personnel. This is evident in the pointed inclusion of an even amount of material from the band’s lengthy history, as well as a sequencing that showcases the creative gamut the many members have run.
As the album chugs along, highlights include the oft-covered “Shocker in Gloomtown,” from the Scat Records days, “Non-Absorbing” from 1993’s Vampire on Titus and the low-fi “Drinker’s Peace” from 1990’s Same Place the Fly Got Smashed. Finally, many will recall their first encounter with the band on the album’s final track, the single “I Am a Scientist.” Pollard croons: “I am a lost soul / I shoot myself with rock ‘n’ roll / the hole I dig is bottomless / but nothing else will set me free.”
Little did anyone know how bottomless Pollard’s hole truly is, or that these middle-aged, Mid-Western drunks would go on to shape the best rock music of a generation.